Setting the scene — sheep and shepherd
This week we are talking about God’s way, our independence and desire to create our own way — and how we keep needing to be called back. This article is linked to The Living Word Bible Study for January 30.
The Bible often uses the analogy of sheep and shepherd, because sheep have the habit of straying into difficulty and danger — to the distress of the shepherd who calls them back into the safety of the flock
If God is our Shepherd — Jesus also said “I am the Good Shepherd; I know My sheep and My sheep know Me, John 10:14 — then who does the calling back? Jesus has returned to heaven leaving us with a clear commission to go out from our circles to find others who will hear this call and encourage them as disciples of jesus.
The ‘calling back’ part is not the role we all want to sign up for. No one likes being reminded that they are in the wrong place and need to turn around. The prophets entrusted with God’s message of reconciliation were often ridiculed and harshly treated. They needed a strong sense of God being with them.
Some verses from Psalm 71 set the scene for us:
In You, Lord, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame.
In Your righteousness, rescue me and deliver me; turn Your ear to me and save me.
Be my rock of refuge, to which I can always go; give the command to save me, for You are my rock and my fortress.
Excerpt from Psalm 71
Jeremiah’s opportunity and risk
We start with Jeremiah’s call as a young person. It speaks to anyone who has ever sensed a call from God. It’s awesome. It is very honouring. But it’s also scary. The responsibility and the risks suddenly become apparent.
The LORD said to me… “You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you.”
Then the LORD touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put My words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”
Excerpt from Jeremiah 1:4-10
God’s message is God’s message and it will come as encouragement to those who look to Him for help, and rely on Him for salvation. But the message is to be heard by the great and powerful in the land as well as those of no position. And they are the ones likely to be part of the institutions, and power structures, that set themselves up in a way that is not submitted to God. These are man-made empires which do not want to defer to the kingdom of God.
The wealth and power of the medieval church — and the widespread corruption in the way wealth was gained and used — was a factor in the Reformation of the 1500s. This represented a sea change in the way God was known and experienced and it was strongly opposed by traditionalists. Courageous voices proclaimed the biblical message, that salvation and new life came from humbly believing and trusting Jesus alone, from relationship with God and not from ritual about God. But the penalties they suffered were severe: burning, drowning or imprisonment.
Jeremiah knew his call was not an easy one. He himself experienced severe and life-threatening punishments, and some are described in his book.
The treatment of God’s prophets, from the early times to the more recent history His hearers knew about, is something Jesus often spoke about. If we persecute someone who God has sent, there is a judgment that comes with that opposition, and we have it spelt out here in Luke’s gospel:
Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.
Luke 11:49-51 NIV
You may also remember that He told the Parable of the Tenants to teach this point, Luke 20:9-16. It’s a story about a landowner who let his vineyard to tenants. It was a sharecropping agreement where a proportion of the crop would come to the owner as rent. So at harvest-time he sent a steward, but they beat him up and sent him away with nothing. This happened with a second person, and again with a third representative. So he sent his son and heir — surely they would respect a family member? But they thought this was their opportunity to get possession, so they beat him and killed him.
Jesus was talking about all the prophets who preceded Him — and alluding to the death He would die. But, in an ironic twist, he would experience a foretaste of what was to come while speaking to the Sabbath congregation in His hometown.
Jesus calls His home town to recognise God’s salvation
Jesus had been invited to read and to give exposition in the synagogue of his home town of Nazareth. The passage He reads is the one about the year of the Lord’s favour, which begins:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent Me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners…
Isaiah 61:1 NIV
He begins His exposition by saying that this time of God’s special favour is being fulfilled, here and now, in Him. And, of course, His mission is to call people back to God, so that they might reveal God and God’s ways to non-Jewish people around them. So He challenges them to see and believe what God is doing in their midst.
They have heard about the miracles and other signs that followed Jesus in and around Capernaum. But they have difficulty in believing something extraordinary about one of their own.
“Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked…
…“Truly I tell you,” He continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed — only Naaman the Syrian.”
Excerpt from Luke 4:21-30
It is a shock for them that Jesus the carpenter has ascribed to Himself this passage. It’s one that summarises all that Isaiah spoke about God’s Anointed Servant. Jesus, standing before them, has drawn a comparison between them and with that past troubled and unbelieving time that they knew all about from the first book of Kings. How dare He…! And rising up in fury, they seized Jesus and marched Him outside to push Him over the brow of the nearby escarpment. But this is not his time. By miraculous deliverance He was able to walk through the crowd that earlier had made Him their prisoner, and leave Nazareth.
Paul calls a church back to God’s way of love
Now we move 25 years further on, after Jesus death and resurrection, and the church of Jesus Christ is growing all around the Mediterranean in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Paul, as we know from Acts, had a number of difficult encounters and narrow escapes By the time his ministry reached Corinth. That he met opposition of a different kind. Corinth was a busy, affluent seaport and the church there was one of the biggest and most successful.
The Greeks loved flowery oratory, and a church where spiritual gifts were known and used was a temptation to people who were not slow to put themselves forward.
Being confident of who we are in Christ, and being willing to step out in faith and minister to others, is one thing – but when it draws attention to us rather than giving glory to God, the tempter has got us to follow his agenda and not God’s.
This is the context for Paul calling people back to God’s way. The churches that he had planted were all what we would call “charismatic”. The dynamic of the Holy Spirit was known and his gifts were shared.
But in the rather self-promoting culture of Corinth, what God gives graciously, had been distorted and misused. Spiritual gifts that come from the heart of God should act as reflections of the heart of God, instances of His love, he argues.
If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries… and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres… Love never fails.
Excerpt from 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Other gifts will come to an end at the end of time. But never faith, hope and especially the greatest, love, because these are the eternal qualities of heaven.
We have seen three different pictures of people fulfilling God’s desire to call people back to him. We have shared something of the young Jeremiah’s lonely mission. We have seen Jesus rejected by His own people at Nazareth as He offered them the deliverance and freedom of God Himself. And now we have heard paul’s appeal to his most numerous church calling them back to the priority of loving with God’s love in all their gifts and actions.
We easily stray from God’s way onto paths that we ourselves have created. Some have created elaborate ritual and hierarchies of priesthood which echo the old covenant Way of worshipping God distantly, not the new covenant that Jesus established of knowing God’s love personally and intimately. Some have created an easy-going, modern theology where we don’t need to believe much because the church does it for us. And the traditional church, shrinking like wool in a hot wash, has lost the will to make the good news of Jesus Christ its mission, and turned it into a debate for club members.
God is calling people back to himself today, and it starts with the household of faith. He’s using people with something of the single-mindedness of Jeremiah, he is using people embodying the life of Jesus, and he is asking all believers to use their God-given attributes including spiritual gifts to communicate God’s heart of love and desire for reconciliation with all who are far off.
That’s where we join him in calling others to walk with God.